Of course you should make sure your backyard farm is legal. You’ll also want to make sure it’s healthful. Recent data show that many urban gardens have high levels of lead and other toxic chemicals.
Where does it come from? Some garden sites may be contaminated by prior industrial activity. Other sites may receive toxic materials from airborne particles, contaminated rain or dust. Lead paint used in residential housing for much of the last century is a major culprit too.
Testing your soil is a start. Simple things like washing your vegetables and your hands after gardening, and keeping dirt out of your home, will help. And for sure, if you aim to sell some of your produce at a farmers’ or community market, make sure it meets applicable health department standards.
Do you have a home garden or thinking about starting one? What about chickens, or maybe even goats? For a number of reasons, a lot of us are doing more and more home gardening and backyard farming. Believe it or not, there may be some legal problems in your backyard.
Home Grown – Home Raised
Why are more people growing their own fruits and vegetables or raising their own chickens for eggs or chicken-and-rice dinners? Everyone’s different and has his own reason, but there are probably four main reasons:
- The 2008-2009 recession and “economic recovery” that’s still progressing in late July 2010 is a prime reason. More of us want and need to save more money, and spending less at the grocery store is a good way to it
- Health concerns play a big role, too. There’s been a lot of press about healthful eating, child obesity, and the use of steroids, fertilizers, and herbicides and insecticides. There’s also a lot of concern about genetically modified foods. Home growing eliminates many of these concerns
- Taste! For most us, vegetables grown in natural sunlight and rain water, and eggs from chickens that eat natural feed, simply taste better than the same items sold at the local market
- Family time. Many families use home gardening and farming as a way of spending quality time with each other and teaching children lessons about responsibility and environmental friendliness
Regardless of the reason and regardless of the size of your backyard activities, there are several legal issues you need to keep in mind when home gardening and farming:
Local zoning laws and ordinances. Many cities and towns have restrictions on which farm animals you may keep on your residential property and how many you may keep. For example, you may be allowed to have only three chickens, or you may not be allowed to keep a goat at all. Generally, these laws are meant to protect your neighbors from noise and odors from your yard.
Check the local laws in your area, and if you run into a problem, consider asking for special permission (called a “variance“) so you can go ahead with your plan.
Building laws and ordinances. Every state, county, city, or township has some sort of building code. These rules, for example, may prevent you from building a chicken coop if your yard’s not large enough to make sure the coop is a certain distance away from your home or a neighbor’s home. Again, in cases like this, you may be able to get a variance.
If you break these laws and ordinances, you may face a fine and be ordered to remove whatever it is that’s breaking the law. These same rules usually require you to build or even dig your garden a certain distance away from your neighbor’s boundary line. Not doing so may lead to a lawsuit by the neighbor.
Do you live in a condominium or cooperative? The odds are, the homeowners’ association (HOA) rules bar you from keeping any type of farm animal and limit your ability to plant fruit or vegetables on the premises. Breaking these rules usually means paying a fine to the HOA. Use pots and containers to grow your vegetables and you should be fine.
“Attractive nuisance.” This when there’s a danger posed to children by something on your property but they don’t realize it’s dangerous. A swimming pool is a good example, and that’s why most areas have laws requiring fences and gates around them.
Children love animals, so if you have farm animals, it’s a good idea to make sure they’re properly penned. Otherwise, you may face a civil lawsuit if a child goes onto your property to pet the animals and somehow gets hurt.
Permits and licenses? Check the laws in your area to see if you need a license or permit for certain types of animals, and what types of veterinary records you need to keep. Also, check to see if you need a permit or license to sell your home grown products from your home. Again, not having the proper paperwork may mean more fines.
Saving money and keeping a healthy diet are great goals. Home gardening and farming certainly can help you do both. If you’re not careful and don’t follow the rules, though, it may cost you more money and headaches in the end.
Questions for Your Attorney
- Do I need a permit or license to sell my home grown produce from my home?
- Do I have to collect sales tax if I sell my fruits and vegetables at a corner stand?
- What can I do if my neighbor’s chickens keep entering my yard and scaring my children?